Smoking With Thomas Cooper

Read the Story March 29, 2015

One of the things I loved about this story is that it’s a story about friendship; in particular, a story about friendship between two old, frail guys. “They’ve had this conversation before and, if they’re lucky, they’ll have it again.” I think this is the kind of companionship many people would like to have when they’re old. Is there a reason you chose to write about friends vs. a (romantic) couple?
First, thank you for your kind remarks. They mean a lot to me.

I don’t know if I have a simple answer to this question. Lately I find that I have little choice about the things I write. I could try to write a delicate and quiet story about the vicissitudes of domestic life—and believe me, I’ve attempted before, for years and years—but they usually turn out crappy. Like Uwe Boll trying to imitate Updike or something. Plus, most of my romantic relationships have been unremarkably positive, particularly now, so there’s not much of a cache from which to draw. “They got along. They were very much attracted to one another. They made each other laugh. They pissed off one another only once or twice a week. They went on vacations every so often and gave one another space when he or she needed it.” Who wants to hear it?

Also, friendship as a subject is given short shrift in fiction, isn’t it? You see it in movies, but in contemporary American novels and short stories, not so much. I wonder why.

This is sort of continuing my thoughts from the first question. I really like the last two sentences: “They wait with their poles poised over the water, at the end of Jones’s line a lucky fly made from a lock of his late wife’s hair. At the end of Smith’s, a plug tufted with his dead dog’s fur, a purebred Labrador of championship lineage.” These two images (the wife’s hair and the dog’s hair) are like clues to Smith’s and Jones’s respective lives. The question that stayed with me was: Is their friendship ultimately based on loss—are they sticking with each other because there is no one else left? And would this be sad or uplifting?
My father passed away in February and one of the few comforts I had during his funeral was hearing how he’d made a couple of close friends near the end of his life. Friendship, no matter how it’s based, is uplifting. Even friendship based on sadness and loss. Particularly friendship based on sadness and loss.

Ghost Bike”, your story in SLQ 23, and “Bluegills” both have very strong endings. In “Ghost Bike,” it is the mother’s line after the story-long, tense silence; here it is the unusual image of the Labrador’s fur and the mention of the dog’s “championship lineage.” I like to think that the most vivid lines in a story have some roots in reality. Not in the sense of being autobiographical, but in the sense of the writer having seen or overheard them somewhere before they found their place in a piece of fiction. They are so real they stand out. Would you agree, and is this the case here?
I definitely heard the bit about a man using a tuft of dog’s fur for a fishing lure from somewhere. I don’t remember where. Definitely not Field and Stream. The man using a lock of his wife’s hair? Entirely made up. Though there’s got to be a guy out there somewhere, right?

It’s true that flotsam and jetsam floats to the surface while writing, always surprisingly. For any writer, I suppose that’s probably one of the most important parts of the process. Those happy accidents. Collages of memory debris.

Your chapbook Phantasmagoria recently won Keyhole’s 2008 Fiction Chapbook Contest. Congratulations! Can you tell us when it will be available?
Thank you. In the next month or two, I’m hoping. Keyhole Press tells me sometime this spring. They’re still working on the cover, which I’m sure is time-consuming. I gave them this wacky graphic design concept and I was surprised when they said, “Sure, sounds good.” I figured they’d say, “Yeah, right, go fuck yourself.”

Not to become too obsessed with the topic of chapbooks, but I’ve always been intrigued by the format, which, I imagine, requires a lot of difficult choices of the writer—which pieces to include, which sequence to put them in. Similar to a collection of short fiction, perhaps, but even harder to pull off, because there is less space, and less time to satisfy the reader. Can you share any wisdom on the art of putting together an award-winning chapbook?
I used to love those making of the album shows on VH1. Remember those? I particularly liked the part of the show when the musicians deliberated about the running order of songs so the whole was always more than the sum of the parts.

I hope the pieces in Phantasmagoria resonate with one another that way, but like an EP. I did a lot more subtracting than adding. I think the stories are stronger together than alone. Also, I tried to follow that time-honored dictum suggested by L. Rust Hills to start and end with stronger stories.

I had about a dozen flash pieces I left out. In the end, I wish I had subtracted one or two more, but at a certain point you have to let go. Now I’m going through the process again with Hellions, the full-length collection of long stories I just “finished.” I’m still adding, subtracting, shifting around and telling myself, “Enough already.”

About the Author:

Thomas Cooper's short stories have recently appeared in New Orleans Review, Pindeldyboz, Beloit Fiction Journal, Quick Fiction, Opium, and elsewhere. His chapbook of flash fiction, Phantasmagoria, is forthcoming from Keyhole Press.